Mastering the First 90 Days in a New Job

Congratulations! You're starting a new job. You've cast aside the security blanket of your previous assignment. You've survived the emotional fits and starts of the hiring process. Now, brimming with confidence, you arrive for the first day of work secure in the knowledge that of all the candidates, you were the one that was identified as having the right combination of skills and attitude for the job. But lingering in the back of your mind are the inevitable questions about whether you made the right move, whether your contribution will be valued, and whether the reality of the new job will live up to its expectations.

How you channel those hopes, dreams and doubts in the first 90 days will set the tone and tenor of your tenure with your new company. You have a limited window of opportunity to create a sustainable advantage for "brand you".

There is no magic formula that will assure a smooth honeymoon. No genetic code governing intercorporate relationships. But the following steps can help you make the most of your new opportunity:

  • Do your homework. Much of your success during the first 90 days comes before you report for work on the first day. Take the time to learn all you can about your new company. Ask for materials about the company—such as information about its products and services and/or business strategies—anything that will allow you to gain a little extra knowledge. Jot down key questions you want to get answered.   

  • Start with a clean sheet.   Just as you research the company, do an in-depth personal inventory of your own skills, behaviors and attitudes. Think about previous jobs and experiences: what worked for you and what didn't, and why. You've got an ideal opportunity to build the new and improved professional you. Write down those personal characteristics that you'd like to improve. Then, develop a strategy to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. For instance, if you were never prepared for meetings, write down ways to improve your performance. If you were always late on assignments, develop a routine that will keep you on time. Develop a reputation for honesty and integrity. It is a reputation you must earn over time. And live up to that reputation at all times, at work and everywhere else.   

  • Orient yourself. As part of your orientation, your company should have done a number of things to bring you up to speed and get you plugged in as fast as possible. But you can't bank on the company taking the initiative. Sadly, few companies recognize the value of making orientation a priority. Don't worry. Remember the old phrase, "If it's to be, it's up to me." Design and implement your own orientation program. Set up meetings with the key people you will interact with. Remember names. Find out what departments you will need to work with. Look for resources you need or that you can draw upon.   

  • Send the right message. Dress conservatively. Don't let your clothes attract more attention than your ideas. Hold in check any behavior that could be deemed offensive to others, including drinking alcoholic beverages over the lunch hour or at professional or social events where customers or co-workers are present, or using profanity.   

  • Stay grounded.   Companies exist to serve customers. Find out all you can about your new company's customer base. What attracts them to your company? Why do they stay? Why do they leave? Base all your decisions on what the customer wants. Be the voice of the customer. Although you'll have to be diplomatic, you work for the customer, not for the company.   

  • Get cultured.   One of the most important ingredients of success in any new job is not the skills you bring to the table. Those are already well recognized. More importantly is how those skills mesh with the corporate culture. Look for clues about how the company operates. How does your boss like information: an impromptu face-to-face meeting? Memo? E-mail? Is it an open-door environment or are formal meetings preferred? How are they conducted? Who needs to be involved? Who do you need to keep in the loop and when? How flexible is your new company when it comes to lunch hours, time off and work arrangements? There is little you can do to fight the corporate culture. But the more you know and understand about the unwritten rules, the more effective you will be. One rule of thumb: regardless of the corporate culture, always be early to appointments and meetings. It shows respect.   

  • Listen up.   Your short- and long-term success depends upon other people. The team you are joining was in place before you arrived and will be in place after you leave. Look for ways to fit in, to build a sense of camaraderie and become a part of the team. Don't go it alone. You have to work in concert with those around you. That means understanding the personalities and capabilities of those above you, those below you and those beside you. More important, initially, is not what you do, but rather how you do it. People like to work with people with whom they feel a connection. Find out about their likes and dislikes, expectations, goals, disappointments and concerns. A word of caution: be careful who you buddy up with. Often a disgruntled employee will try to charm you in an effort to push their agenda. Treat everybody as equals with an air of cautious openness (not intimacy) and don't be too quick to align yourself with certain individuals.   

  • Keep perspective.   The allure of a new job can be intoxicating. It's easy to be infatuated with the people, the processes, and the purpose of your new firm. You will be tempted to overlook the blemishes and to ignore the warning signs because you want this job to be better. But is it really better, or just new? The newness will fade. Keep your cultural antenna raised. While these imperfections may be insignificant, they may provide evidence of deeper personal or corporate issues you need to deal with down the road.   

  • Avoid politics.   Keep your hands clean and your nose to the grindstone. Hard work will be recognized and rewarded. Getting caught up in internal politics or turf battles is a no-win proposition. Avoid building your own personal power base or fiefdom. Understand what the company does and help further that mission.   

  • Talk it up.   You hear and you forget. You see and you remember. You do and you understand. Find out what your company does and how it does it. Tell your friends and family. Be ready to give a 30-second overview to anyone that asks, from your friends to your grandma to your next-door neighbor. The more you talk about corporate goals and objectives, the clearer they become in your mind, and the sooner you start living them.   

  • Earn your stripes.   You've come to your new assignment with a list of questions and ideas from your previous job that you want to import. You want to hit the ground running. Establish a reputation for yourself. Prove that the company made the right decision when they brought you on. Unfortunately, that's a fine line. Come out too aggressively and you could be perceived as a threat to the status quo and an assault on the corporate culture. Remember, the company hired you to help fill a gap. They didn't hire you to shake the place up. They want you in their boat pulling in the same direction. Not off in your own speedboat making waves. Bide your time, be patient and the opportunities to make changes will come. Remember, this is a long-distance race. Before you start a full-out sprint you need to walk a mile (at least) in their shoes and pace yourself so you don't flame out too early.   

  • Start small.   Coming from the outside you will see lots of things that you will question and be tempted to change. Like a hunter with a fully loaded rifle and a great aim, you can't possibly hit all the targets at once. Before you start spraying the sky with bullets, fix your aim on one and fire. In other words: be still, listen to what's going on and set your sights on small, achievable victories.   

  • Share credit.   One of the quickest ways to gain acceptance for you and your contributions is to include other people. Involve them from the get-go and they will help you steer through political minefields, polish your ideas and make for a better contribution. When it works, give them the credit. If it bombs, shoulder the responsibility. When you make mistakes, take responsibility for them immediately. Failure to do so will only intensify ill-will. And don't make the same mistake again. Replace "I" and "me" in your lexicon with "we" and "us." You will quickly engender a flood of support and good will. The object is to create trust and engender loyalty and commitment.   

  • Do your chores.   One of the most effective ways to learn about an organization is to roll up your sleeves and do the menial tasks that are necessary in any job. How are the phones answered? How is printing done? The mailroom? Even the coffee. Showing a willingness to do these tasks will enhance your standing and provide a better understanding of what it takes to get the job done.   

  • Be tactful.   Don't rush to judgment. That strategy you're knocking likely is somebody's pet project. Let go of your own preconceived notions and try to understand why it was developed and how it has been implemented. You may learn something. Even if you don't, by showing your understanding and support you may be able to make thoughtful enhancement.   

  • Set the right precedents.   In your gung-ho rush to please, you may be prone to tackle more of the workload, work long hours or involve yourself in areas beyond your sphere of influence. Just beware that precedents can be hard to overturn. When you scale back or slow down, it could be perceived as a waning of commitment or enthusiasm.   

  • Keep balance. In a similar vein, don't forget the other priorities in your life—your family, your health, your hobbies, your friends. If all facets of your life are not in alignment, there's no way you will find fulfillment on the job. Remember, you work to live; you don't live to work.